Community college vs university: 10 important differences

There are thousands of community colleges and universities throughout the United States. While universities have long attracted international as well as domestic students, community colleges have historically attracted a largely local cohort. Today, however, many do now welcome international students too.

The choice of community college vs. university really depends on your overall plan for higher education, and for US students in particular, aspects which community colleges have in their favor such as lower overall fees, low admissions requirements and local access to the classes can be the deciding factors.

Lots of students are still drawn to traditional 4-year universities, however, which offer many things a community college does not, including extensive campus facilities, sports and a more rounded student life.

Community colleges primarily offer 2-year programs that provide an "associate’s" degree, which students can then use to transfer to a full college or university and complete their undergraduate degree in another two years.

Like many community college students, international students at Kings following the Guaranteed Outcome (GO) programs complete the first two or three years of their degree at one of our partner universities (located in Boston, New York, California and Wisconsin), before generally transferring to complete their degree at another top ranked university. These settings provide the optimum place for international students to start their US university degree, offering small classes, and the opportunity to study — and live — alongside American students their own age from Day One.

The extensive support and preparation that we offer also ensures that the vast majority of our students transfer to complete their degree not only at a traditional university, but one of the Top 50 or Top 100 universities in the United States.

Table of Contents

What is community college?

Difference #1: Class size

Difference #2: Degree programs

Difference #3: Transferring credits

Difference #4: Cost of tuition

Difference #5: Learning styles and academic quality

Difference #6: Extracurricular activities and student life

Difference #7: Flexibility

Difference #8: Financial aid

Difference #9: Online classes

Difference #10: Career prospects

What is Community College?

In the US, a community college is a higher education institution that primarily serves its surrounding community.

Community colleges offer traditional academic classes like math and history that will transfer to a four-year college or university but also offers more community-focused or vocational programs like resume writing, or junior swim classes. Historically, community colleges were known as junior colleges.

Most offer a variety of degrees or certificates that prepare both domestic and international students either for their first entry-level job, or for entry into a traditional, and often large, university to gain a full bachelor’s degree.

Difference #1: Class Size

Class sizes in community colleges are generally quite small. You are unlikely to attend big, crowded lectures, and most classes will have around 20 students. This allows for much more interaction in classrooms. However, many of the faculty members are lecturers who are employed part-time and students may find it difficult to have access to their professors.

At Kings partner universities, we also offer smaller class sizes, which help make them the ideal first setting for international students acclimatizing to university life in the US. Most importantly, most of the faculty members are full time staff and generally more accessible to students.

Big, public research universities on the other hand can have lectures which are attended by over 100 students at any one time. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but it is a definite trend in universities of this type.

Difference #2: Degree Programs

As already referenced, the main difference between a community college and a university is that most degrees at a community college only take two years to complete, while degrees at a traditional, four-year institutions span four years.

At four-year universities students spend their first two years taking general education requirements, also known as “gen-eds,” such as math or history, regardless of what their area of focus will be.

Instead of doing the first two years at a traditional university, some students will choose to do those two years of general education requirements at a community college first and then move to a traditional university as a transfer student to complete the last two years of their degree.

Even though both programs offer “gen-eds” courses, it can be common for students attending community colleges to have difficulty registering for these courses due to community colleges enrolling more students than they can handle.

Difference #3: Transferring Credits

Those people who attend a two-year community college to fulfil their general education requirements and earn an associate's degree gain general credits which can then be transferred to a 4-year university to earn a bachelor's degree.

Across the country, community colleges have worked to ensure that their associate's degrees match the general education requirements of most universities, especially local ones, but not all credits are transferrable to a four-year bachelor’s degree institution.

All Kings partner universities’ credit however, is transferrable. Dedicated on-site Progression Advisors help each student understand and complete the transfer process, helping them to establish the best fit for their goals and needs. Kings Progression Advisors will help students to plan out their courses to ensure that every course is transferrable.

Difference #4: Cost of Tuition

In general, community college education is deemed to be more affordable. The average tuition is half that of a public university — partly because community colleges avoid costs like big campus infrastructure and extracurricular programs. Books and food still cost the same, but many US community college students save money by living at home.

Obviously for international students who are coming to the US independently and without family to stay with, the large cost offset by living at home would unfortunately not apply. It is worth also bearing in mind that whilst overall tuition fees are lower, it can take longer to complete an associate’s degree at a community college. While the average length of this type of degree is two years, at a community college, it can often take longer. In addition, since on-campus residence is not generally available at a community college, international students will often have to find their own housing and sign typically at least a year lease with a significant deposit since they don’t have credit history in the US.

Difference #5: Learning Styles & Academic Quality

In the past, community college classes have often been viewed as less academically serious and rigorous than those at traditional four-year schools. But a lot has changed and academic standards have risen, as have the qualifications of the teachers. Many community colleges now require most professors to have a master's or doctoral degree in their discipline, although you may get some younger, less experienced teachers too. Teachers at community colleges are more likely to have a background in industry (as opposed to academia) than university professors. However, most of the professors working at community colleges are part-time lecturers, often with another vocation or working at several institutions.

At universities, both large public state universities and smaller, private universities like many of Kings’ partner institutes, full-time professors have a doctoral degree.

As already highlighted, the smaller classes at both community colleges and Kings’ partner universities, mean that there is much more one-to-one interaction with teaching staff, which can be very beneficial to overall learning and progress. Teachers and professors here are likely to spend most of their time teaching and working with students, whereas at large universities, professors may spend a good amount of time conducting original research and therefore less time teaching.

Difference #6: Extracurricular Activities & Student Life

This is one area where universities will generally always have an advantage over community colleges. Most community colleges don't invest as much in campus facilities, athletics programs, and student clubs/organizations, although they do often still exist. That makes it more affordable, but it means that many students miss out on “the college experience”, which includes living in student dorms and participating in campus life.

Those community college students who transfer to a traditional university after two years can sometimes struggle to adapt to this new type of environment, whereas Kings students on the Guaranteed Outcome programs, for example, will already be used to campus life when they transfer, albeit it on a smaller scale.

All of our partners have small, safe and inclusive campus environments, which are ideal for new international students adapting to student life in the US. Students will have opportunities to join activities and organizations that they are passionate about, which in turn will help them build their profile as a strong student.

Difference #7: Flexibility

Within community colleges, the student body can often be much more varied in terms of age and background than traditional universities. Students’ ages can range from 17-60 and sometimes above, although the average tends to be around 30 (28, according to the American Association of Community Colleges). For this reason, the flexibility that local community colleges offer can be of huge benefit in particular to students who are studying alongside work, or who have a family to take care of and therefore need to study part time.

The flexibility of the schedule can rarely be found in traditional schools. Community colleges offer many more night classes.

Your level of participation and what you get out of it are up to you — this can be hugely helpful to those with other commitments, but for those students whose primary focus is study, the more stringent and intensive study schedule of many universities can sometimes be preferable. As international students, it’s important to surround themselves with peers who they can build lifelong friendships with, and who have the common goal of getting into a top-ranked university.

Difference #8: Financial Aid

Financial aid isn't only for four-year college students — community college students are eligible as well. About 60% of US community college students who apply for financial aid receive some, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

For international students however, whether at a community college or university, most still rely on their own sources of funds to pay for their education, even if that's through a personal student loan.

Difference #9: Online Classes

As is the case with traditional universities, certain community colleges have expanded their online offerings to attract a wider range of students.

Online course offerings and components at both types of institution will have of course increased exponentially over the last year, since the global Covid pandemic began.

Difference #10: Career Prospects

Career prospects for those who attend community college after high school are likely to vary according to whether they finish their education with a two-year degree (associate’s degree), or transfer to a university to complete a bachelor’s degree.

There are plenty of jobs which can be accessed with an associate degree rather than a bachelor’s degree, including radiation therapist, engineering technician and registered nurse. Some of the fastest-growing careers for people with associate degrees include dental assistants, paralegals and legal assistants, and web developers, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for 2018 to 2028. While these career fields offer strong job prospects one thing to note is that there is generally a cap on their maximum salary and they may be limited when it comes to progressing to a management position.

Arguably, though, completing a full 4-year degree will give you access to a wider range of careers and, most likely, higher earning potential. Aside from the field of study, and profession you choose, the university you graduate from can also have a bearing on your employability.

For this reason, aiming for a Top 100 or even Top 50 university, as is possible with Kings, will give you an even greater chance of career success.

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We hope that this article has helped you understand more about community colleges and universities, and how Kings Guaranteed Outcome programs can help you on your path to a top US university.

If you would like receive more detailed information about the Kings and our programs, please get in touch with us at enquiries@kingseducation.com.

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